Onstage, Dutch National Ballet dancers have a no-nonsense energy and an intoxicating confidence—and for good reason: The company has been on the rise since Ted Brandsen took the reins in 2003. The dancer-turned-choreographer has hired a host of up-and-coming young soloists, and produced an enviable string of premieres: Alexei Ratmansky and John Neumeier have set some of their best ballets on the troupe, and ambitious new works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and others have entered the repertoire. After a long period of uncertainty over its mission, DNB is returning to its creative roots.
Founded in 1961, Dutch National Ballet started out as a classical company with an emphasis on new work, galvanized by Dutch choreographers like Hans van Manen and Rudi van Dantzig. However, that focus began to fade in the 1990s. And while Wayne Eagling introduced leading American choreographers like Jerome Robbins during his directorship from 1991 to 2003, “there was a bit of confusion in the Netherlands about the identity of the company,” Brandsen says. The board returned the company to its Dutch foundation by tapping Brandsen, who was born near Amsterdam and danced with the company before directing the West Australian Ballet.
Brandsen’s most pressing task has been learning to juggle the “three pillars” of a very large repertoire: Dutch choreography, 19th-century classics and international 20th-century masterpieces. No fewer than three resident choreographers (van Manen, former company member Krzysztof Pastor and Brandsen himself) are upholding the Dutch connection at the moment. With traditional versions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, not to mention the largest Balanchine repertoire outside of New York City Ballet, the company also serves as the Netherlands’ only “museum of dance,” as Brandsen dryly puts it, with a clean, unfussy approach to every style. “We still need to reaffirm that this wide focus is essential to our identity,” he explains.
DNB has also historically been home to a number of emerging choreographers, from David Dawson to current soloist Juanjo Arqués. With a 50th-anniversary festival of nine world premieres scheduled for February 2012, Amsterdam remains an exciting place to see new work. The relationship DNB is developing with master storyteller Alexei Ratmansky—who staged a new version of Don Quixote and will also take part in the festival—has proved particularly useful in expanding the dancers’ artistic horizons.
The 80-strong ensemble is an eclectic mix of performers, with principals ranging from Larissa Lezhnina, a former Kirov soloist with pristine Vaganova lines, to young Canadian prodigy Matthew Golding. Brandsen has continued a tradition of acquiring top international talent. “Bringing in very strong principals from outside can help lead the company, show them what we aspire to,” he explains. His latest coup is the hiring of the Russian-born spitfire Jurgita Dronina.
With no less than seven ranks, the European-style hierarchy remains difficult for young dancers to navigate, especially since most of the dancers at the top are imported rather than promoted. “In a large company, you cannot always give everyone extra attention, but I’ve had some lovely surprises with dancers who managed to exceed my expectations,” says Brandsen. However, the company’s large number of performances at the Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam often allows emerging talent to take on bigger roles. “We try to give chances to younger dancers by letting them be third, fourth, fifth cast,” says Brandsen. “If we have 15 shows, soloists and principals are usually quite happy not to have to do all of them!”
Like many arts organizations, however, DNB has had major cuts in its public subsidy. The budget will be slashed by 7.5 percent over the next two years, and, with a complete overhaul of the Netherlands’ funding system scheduled for 2013, the future is uncertain. “Ours is a very fragile equilibrium right now,” Brandsen says. “We’re going to need to show not only the politicians, but the people of this country, why it’s important to have a first-rate ballet company.”
DNB boasts a range of shapes and sizes, but “good proportions” are paramount. “During the audition, show us your drive,” Brandsen advises. “You need something that catches the eye—musicality, an ability to pick up material.” Also, be sure you know the repertoire. “We get audition requests from people who could not possibly do contemporary. You need to be able to dance everything, and to work with a choreographer.” Brandsen has recently hired a number of North Americans, and he praises their work ethic. “They don’t have the sense of entitlement that we sometimes see with Western European dancers.”
At A Glance
Dutch National Ballet
Number of dancers: 80
Contract length: Year-round
Starting salary: About $3,150 a month (gross wage)
Performances per year: 100 on average